135 Journals Book Club: The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook, Edited by Daniel Alarcon

9 Apr




The award-winning Edwidge Dandicat (Krik? Krak! and other fiction) was just one of the novelists interviewed for this book (David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons)

The Secret Miracle is an excellent book for any budding—or working–novelist to read. It comes out of the 826 Valencia Project, which is related to Dave Eggers and the McSweeneys writer’s collective. At 826 Valencia Street in San Francisco, at least up to the time of the writing of this book and no doubt continuing on today, there are monthly interviews with a wide variety of novelists about exactly what it is they do, how they do it, what inspires them, and even what “a good writing day” is. The editor has compiled and arranged answers to a number of questions that are of great interest in ways that both humanize the writers and reassure the reader.

One of the great things about this collection of questions and answers is the astonishing variety of accomplished writers who share their thoughts on the craft and the writing life. From Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Dandicat, Jonathan Lethem, Yiyun Li, Claire Messud, and Gary Shteyngart—oh, and Stephen King— the virtual panel that answers the questions in the book show a great range, and are also some of the most celebrated writers of this generation.

The authors answer such questions as “What do you look for in a novel?” Roddy Doyle, for instance, says, “surprise and reassurance,” while Jose Manuel Prieto says “A different way of looking at the world, one that expands my way of understanding it . . . with a new philosophy, a new grammar of existence.” When asked how many books the writers read each month, most answered that it varied, but many seemed to read about three novels a month—not a huge number, but an understandable one. When asked how much they write a day, answers were all over the map, from lying on the couch thinking to 500 words to five pages a day. Michael Chabon was perhaps the strictest in his approach. “I try to get a thousand new words every writing day, five days a week. Fifty-two weeks a year. Try.”

It was interesting to me that most of these writers either don’t outline: Colm Toibin said he only outlines in his head, while others , like Daniel Handler, “outline lots and lots and then ignore most of it,” or, as Jennifer Egan does, she only outlines after the first draft. ” Rick Moody disdains the outline entirely—“Books that are outlined often read ast though they are outlined,” while others, such as Yael Hedaya wish they could, “But I have the attention span of a two-year-old.”

I was fascinated to see how much most of these authors “winged it” with their books. Many of them did the bulk of their research during, not before, the writing of the book. Others couldn’t figure out who the protagonist was until the book started unfolding, and also, often changed from first person to third person or back again. One thing that all the writers urged, repeatedly, was patience. That writing a novel was a process of discovery. You could think all you wanted about a character—and should—germination time is important. But that a lot of what made a character work or not , what made them come to life, was actually writing scenes in which they had to make choices. And that almost all of the writers spent a considerable amount of time revising their work, once they saw what they had created in their first drafts.

As I read this book, I felt an increased respect for these writers. It is probably not coincidental that they have won so many literary prizes, given their willingness to avoid formula and to trust in their individual voices and techniques. It helps me to be reminded that every aspect of a novel—from structure to character to setting and dialog—is up for grabs and experimentation. I felt more willing to sit with the process of drafting my own fiction, to loosen the reins of structure a bit and allow my main characters to be the powerful young women they are.

Oh, and a note: The proceeds from this book benefit 826 National, which helps K-12 students develop their writing skills in cities around the U.S. with the help of volunteer tutors. To learn more, check out http:www//826national.com.


Writing prompt: What qualities do YOU enjoy in novels?

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